Monday, December 15, 2014

The necessity of necessity (part 2)

In last week’s article, I talked (again; see here for the original article) about motivation in studying, and how it’s important for constancy, long-term progress, determination, etc. This is widely know, I think…. everyone knows that clear, well-defined goals are more inspiring. As in… aside from factors like personality, determination, self-motivation, etc., someone with a real pressing need to learn Arabic or Spanish will likely have more focus and do better because of pressure than someone who’s just casually learning. 
That’s a broad, sweeping general statement, and I know it’s not always the case, but it is with me. My issue is that I’d love to speak any number of other foreign languages, some that I’ve studied before, some that I haven’t, but the common ground between them all is that I absolutely 0% need them. Interest can only take you so far. 
It would be like…. Mongolia’s navy. Or here in the New York Times

This country has a navy. 
It’s a good idea, perhaps, in theory, because like, ‘other nations have navies and it makes sense that we should too.’ Except their environment rather excludes the actual necessity (and in some cases even feasibility) of such an endeavor, and linguistically, I feel like I’m in the same boat. 
I live in a foreign country, where English is not widely spoken (very well), and I speak the native tongue here, and am making a rather slow but diligent effort to study the local ‘dialect,’ a full-on language with an incredible range of expression but no writing system or
published literature. Are there foreigners in my city? For sure. There are a few major migrant populations from a few countries, who come here mostly to do menial labor or act as in-home-care for the elderly (maids and housekeepers, basically), and on the other end of the spectrum are the white-collar businesspeople here for trade and commerce. Most of them speak English, as do the housekeepers, if they’re from the Philippines, usually.
So at least from that regard, a solid argument could be made for learning Tagalog, Vietnamese, Thai, or Indonesian, and I have actually spent significant time (significantly on-and-off) learning Thai on my own. The only problem with that idea is that I hardly ever actually need to speak with those people. They’re not part of my day-to-day life. I don’t interact with any of that group enough to justify (actually to support, I should say) my learning any of the languages. And that’s the problem. 
I have no need for it. I am very interested in learning to speak Thai fluently. I’ve spent lots of time trying to learn to read it, write it, spell, memorizing tone rules and everything else, but short of going WAY out of my way on a regular basis, there’s no opportunity to use what I’ve learned. 

That problem of use is really, then, what it boils down to. Whether you are too shy or insecure to use it, or you are really willing to use it but don’t have any chance to, the old adage is true: use it or lose it. 
I've come to this realization multiple times with studies of various languages, and it's discouraging. Part of the issue is that my life now is fundamentally different than it was ten years ago... I was living in the suburbs of a biggish city in America with tons of immigrant communities. My work at the time brought me into contact with all sorts of people from all walks of life, people that spoke Arabic, Wolof, Turkish, Albanian, Swahili, Farsi, Urdu, Hungarian, Greek, Romanian, Azerbaijani, Russian, as well as the more common languages like Spanish, Haitian Creole, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. To some degree or other, I made an effort to come to understand a bit about the language if not some of the language itself. For example, I speak hardly a word of Korean, Japanese, Hungarian or Albanian (among many of the others listed above), but I do know a bit about the languages, their history or grammar or little bits of trivia. It's nothing more than trivia, but is still somewhat useful. But how far can you go, how long can you extend a study of a language that you don't have any chance to use in real life? 
A point could be made for creating necessity, or mimicking an environment: podcasts, television shows, kids' books, etc. and those are all great tools, but even if you can find someone to speak your language with, it doesn't guarantee success. Why?
I've found some people are quite awful at conversation, even in my mother tongue. If someone's mind isn't geared toward teaching, I find that unless you already speak with some useful level of proficiency (or they speak your mother tongue), it can be a bit of a brick wall. Don't count on them to tell you what to learn or how. We'll talk about taking advantage of native speakers later, but I still find that in an interaction, without a purpose, a drive to the conversation, like needing to conduct business, solve a problem, etc. the spark of a conversation quickly dies. I've never been terribly successful with a "hey let's just talk in [this language] conversation because I need to practice" without some real motivation or desire to discuss something, or a need to communicate. And that's where I am now. 
I need the environment, a willing participant, a reason to conduct conversation, motivation to communicate. I''ll talk later about my love/hate relationship with languages and my love affair with learning, but currently, I'm infatuated (again) with Norwegian. And for absolutely zero good reasons, so there's that nagging voice in my head that's saying "this is a waste of time. Your time would be better spent learning Calculus or chemistry," and that's probably true. 
So, then what?

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